Updated: Jul 14, 2021
By Alexandra McIntosh
You’ve probably heard the one about canaries in the coal mines—how old-timey miners took birdcages into the dark passages with them, the birdsong winging its way along the slick rock roofs. The birds' bodies were more sensitive than the miners, and their chirping would stop if there was a gas leak, alerting the crew that they needed to pack out. The soft thud of bird bodies against cage floors was the equivalent of modern day detection system alarm bells. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that artists play a similar role in society, that their despair and outrage a signify that society is off track. As an artist myself, and a friend to many artists, I would agree that we’re a sensitive breed. That is not to say, of course, that non-artists are not empathetic, or don’t feel despair, but the pain seems to reside deeper in artists. More like an ache rather than an abrasion; something that cannot be ignored or looked around. More like a vantage point, something that must be looked out of.
Coronavirus is no doubt causing worldwide grief, and artists are no exception. The uncertainty, the lack of information, the fear is affecting us all, regardless of our intellectual bents. It’s this grief that reminded me of Vonnegut’s canaries, that made me wonder if he was right, if perhaps a tad pessimistic—a label Vonnegut’s dystopian prose has certainly earned him before. It’s interesting, though, that Vonnegut’s very real experience as a POW in World War II no doubt served as inspiration for some of his most unimaginable fiction; one might argue that a global health crisis causing minority communities disproportionate harm, families lacking access to economic aid, and panicked protestors demanding their rights to put others at risk, seems fairly dystopian as well.
Artists, particularly artists of color and their allies, have long been grieving the unjust economic environment of our times. And the outcome of COVID19 has been an all- too-predictable lesson in inequality. I wonder though, if Vonnegut’s coal mine theory is lacking an important component. What if the canaries aren’t just there to die? What if their purpose is about more than just keeping the miners alive? What if their chirping— and lack thereof—isn’t just an archaic alarm system, but a brilliant light in the dark? What if the miners needed company as well as warning, beauty as much as safety?
We see in the art of all oppressed people groups not just information but splendor. Slave songs contained messages yes, but they were wrapped in beauty. Native artwork mourns the precious loss of culture precisely by preserving its loveliness. The Black Arts Movement resisted White Supremacy through creativity, through freedom of expression, through beauty. What if our goal during the pandemic is not only to mourn but also to rejoice? What if our goal as artists, as speakers of truth, and cultural preservationists, is not only to get angry, but to get beautiful? To dance, to sing, to write poems, to paint vibrantly, to laugh, and embrace humanity even while we’re in isolation?
Because the resistance and the art are one and the same. The canaries’ songs were a revolt against death as much as was their biological sensitivity. As artists, our joy is as powerful, and as essential, as our pain. So, let’s not wait to be noticed until we’re no longer singing. Let us create in our grief. Let us grieve vibrantly. Beautifully.
Alexandra McIntosh lives and writes in Kentucky, her favorite place in the world. You can find links to her publications and photos of her dog on her website AlexandraMcIntosh.com.